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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Nick Spaling: Keeping an Open Mind by @griffTHW

Let me first preface this by stating that I've never seen Nick Spaling play.  Not once.  So any opinions, hopes or expectations I have for his time in Pittsburgh come courtesy of nothing more than what I've read. 

And, while some glowing reports highlight Spaling's overall game, most of the available literature out there serves to condemn his acquisition.  Doubts about his ability to replicate past production, concerns about his contract and an intense, laser-like focus on his less-than-stellar advanced statistics all provide doubters with an arsenal of criticisms to sling at one of the newest members of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Now, in analyzing the slew of critical numbers and data available, fans and pundits can obviously draw whatever conclusion they want regarding what Spaling will or won't accomplish in the next two years.  But, given the fact that, you know, he hasn't even played a game in Pittsburgh yet, isn't it kind of early to simply write him off as a poor acquisition?

With that spirit in mind, I thought I'd take a look at some of the common criticisms of Spaling's game from a slightly different perspective:

The Shooting Percentage Red Flag

Critics will quickly point out that, while Spaling did produce 13 tallies last season, the output went hand-in-hand with a hefty 15.3% of his shots finding the back of the net. Consequently, when that percentage predictably comes back down to earth, Spaling's production will drop with it.

That may well prove to be true.  It's worth noting, though, that since the 2010-'11 campaign, Spaling has registered shooting percentages of 10.7%, 9.4%, 15.8% and 15.3%.  Regardless of the percentage, however, he always hovered around the 10-goal mark.  What's more, if it weren't for the lockout-shortened season, he would have hit double-digit goal totals in each of the last three years.

Such production won't put him in contention for any scoring titles but, if he can maintain that consistency, it will make him a welcome addition to a bottom-six that saw only Brandon Sutter produce at least 10 markers during the 2014-'14 season.

Less Opportunity on a Skilled Pittsburgh Squad

Its no secret that the Penguins employ arguably the greatest top-end talent on the circuit.  Consequently, Spaling, some believe, will likely see less ice time in Pittsburgh and significantly fewer power play minutes, a reality that may hinder his production.

A closer look, though, reveals that Spaling's averaged 16:01 minutes per contest last year in Nashville.  Compare that to potential linemate Brandon Sutter's 15:46 and it's easy to surmise the versatile forward's overall ice time actually remaining somewhat consistent with what he logged with the Predators.

Of course, Spaling likely won't enjoy the 1:10 of power play time per game that he logged last year but it's not as if he served as some sort specialist with the Preds.  In fact, you can throw out the whopping six points he registered with the man advantage and he still would have given you a 26 point campaign, a number that would have tied him with Sutter for the highest point production amongst the Pens' bottom-six.

Another Bad Contract

When word got out that Spaling had requested a $2.85 million salary prior to his arbitration hearing, skepticism gave way to outrage as many of the Pittsburgh faithful voiced their collective displeasure with one of Jim Rutherford's first acquisitions.  When the dust settled, though, Spaling and the Penguins met in the middle (who could have ever seen that coming?!) and agreed on a two-year, $4.4 million deal.  In the end, Pittsburgh may have slightly overpaid for Spaling's services but, in a world where Deryk Engelland can command nearly $3 million per season, slightly overpaying doesn't necessarily look so bad.

Sure, one could pine over the Penguins missing out on cheaper options such as Daniel Winnik, Lee Stempniak or David Booth.  But, moving forward, what's the point?  Those ships have sailed.   

Regardless of the contract, regardless of whether or not the Pens slightly overpaid, Spaling provides the club with a versatile forward who can play virtually anywhere, someone who displays an ability to skate in any situation and capable of filling any role in the bottom-six.  In short, he'll bolster the depth of a forward unit that relied too heavily on AHL caliber talent to fill out last year's roster.

But What About Those Atrocious Advanced Stats?!

It's no secret that Spaling's advanced stats leave something to be desired.  In fact, if we're being honest here, they're amongst the worst in the league.

But, you know what?  I couldn't care less.  And that's not meant as a shot at the fancy stat gurus out there; those numbers clearly have their place in the game.

But Spaling accrued the possession numbers that so man people hammer on as a member of, at best, an average club playing most of their contests within the confines of a typically superior conference.  In Spaling's four (full) years in Nashville, the Predators twice finished in the bottom third of the West and never made it past the second round of the postseason.

Maybe a new environment in the East will help bolster those numbers; maybe it won't.  Only time will tell.  But I'm sure as hell willing to wait and see how Spaling performs in a Pens jersey before I write his acquisition off as a mistake based simply on the numbers.





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